Crew of Rescue Ship Receives Human Rights Award

The crew of the rescue ship “Iuventa” from the German NGO Jugend Rettet has been honored by the Swiss Paul Grüninger Foundation with a human rights award for saving the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the central Mediterranean.

The prize, worth over 50,000 Swiss francs (44,000 euros), is awarded every two years to those who show exceptional courage, and those who put the safety of others ahead of their own. Many parallels can be drawn between Paul Grüninger and the Iuventa crew.

Grüninger was a Swiss police officer who permitted in the years 1938 and 1939 safe entry to 3,600 mostly Jewish refugees into Switzerland, thus saving them from certain death in concentration camps. He was convicted and fired from his job. Paul Grüninger was only rehabilitated in 1990, long after his death. His family received a large payment, which led to the creation of the foundation that today carries his name.

Unfounded accusations

The Iuventa crew undoubtedly deserves the award. In less than two years, they’ve saved the lives of around 14,000 people. The search and rescue missions stopped abruptly in August 2017, when Italian authorities impounded their rescue vessel. The crew is currently under investigation, accused of people smuggling and collusion with human traffickers.

The prosecutors have until now not found any evidence of wrongdoing. On the contrary, the research agency Forensic Architecture (FA) has collected material showing that the Iuventa crew neither collaborated with smugglers nor facilitated human trafficking.

Further, officials from the Italian Coast Guard have shown their support for the rescuers and expressed their gratitude for the help the crew provided in times when they were overwhelmed by the flow of migrants in the Mediterranean. The officials also rejected the claims that sea rescuers might act as pull factors for irregular migration.

Press conference in Berlin

On Monday, three crew members who are under investigation held a press conference together with their lawyer. One of them, Captain Dariush, shared his utter disbelief when he realized how far EU states were willing to go to stem the flow of migrants.

He recounts how one day, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), the authority responsible for coordinating search and rescue operations, instructed the Iuventa, without stating a reason, to sail to Lampedusa, forcing them to abandon a rescue mission off the Libyan coast. The detour took three days. During those three days, five ships with about 1,000 people on board disappeared without a trace.

Later, when the investigations started and access to files was granted, the crew understood that the request from the MRCC was made in order for the Italian authorities to install bugs on the ship.

Rescuing people in distress is not just a right, but a duty

The award ceremony will take place on Friday in St. Gallen. The Iuventa crew has invited dozens of other human rights activists who have been accused and convicted of showing solidarity with migrants, including the Stansted 15 and the Briançon 7. The money will help cover legal fees, but Dariush said he would “rather be at sea than at a gala in St. Gallen.”

Meanwhile, the investigations against the crew will continue. They face up to 20 years in prison. Their lawyer, Nicola Canestrini, hopes that by the end of 2019, we will know if there will be an actual trial. During the press conference, he said that it is an honor to represent the Iuventa crew and looked back at the persecution of the Jews during the Second World War, asking, “How do we look today at the border police of Switzerland, who sent the Jews back at the border? Are we saying that they just followed orders?”

Back then, Grüninger broke Switzerland’s migration laws. This is not the case for the Iuventa crew. Rescuing people in distress is not just a right, but a duty. The individuals that are accused today of breaking the law have just filled the gap left by the inaction of European governments.

You too can help the Iuventa crew in their legal battle by donating here.